Jack the Ripper DNA test proves… not very much, really

My friend Anna asked me what I think about the DNA testing which apparently “proves” that Aaron Kosminski was the infamous Jack the Ripper. I posted a Facebook comment in reply, and it was such a long comment that I thought, do you know what, I think I may as well blog this. So here it is (slightly amended).

I should point out that Russell Edwards, a self-proclaimed armchair detective, says this is case-closed. I am a self-proclaimed chaise longue detective, who is usually more interested in the Essex arsenic panic, but I shall don my deerstalker anyway, and go for a gallop about the foggy backstreets of late 19th century Whitechapel… (a stone’s throw from where two of my great-grandparents were living at the time).


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Unfortunate ways to die in Beaumont-cum-Moze, 1576-1865


Dying is rather unfortunate anyway, but in Beaumont-cum-Moze, the causes of death are given far more often than they are in other burial registers that I’ve seen. So here, then, are unfortunate ways to die in Beaumont-cum-Moze.[1]Before 1678, Beaumont and Moze were two separate parishes.

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1 Before 1678, Beaumont and Moze were two separate parishes.

An airy thought….

There I was, opening another marriage register, ready to transcribe, when I spotted something, which took my mind far from the nuptials of the people of Essex, and off into the realms of literature.

Not that this is an unusual occurrence – some people have remarked to me that “we’re all related to each other anyway” and “it’s just a list of lots of names”, but what always fascinates me are the stories you can find in parish registers. There is so much material for authors of historical novels in them – strange deaths, attempted bigamy, bizarre choices for children’s names, I could go on…..

Sometimes, I come across things in registers which remind me of novels I have read. I studied English Literature at university, which is probably to blame. For instance, all those soldiers posted at Weeley from 1803, who married the local girls, reminded me straight away of the militia being billeted near the Bennets’ home in Pride and Prejudice. And my various wanderings in old churchyards bring to mind Wuthering Heights and (as mentioned when I went round St. Peter’s, Harborne) the ghost stories of M. R. James.[1]Especially when something rather uncanny happened to me and my mum in the churchyard at High Ongar….

But on this particular occasion, where I paused in my transcribing, my thoughts derailed, it was because I had noticed a particular surname. It wasn’t the first time I had, but this time my thoughts coalesced adequately for me to to think… “Hang on! I wonder if…?”

Jane Eyre is one of my favourite novels. It has been since we read an abridged version of it when I was 11 at primary school; then, when I was 13 at senior school we read the full edition and were allowed to watch the 1983 adaptation with Timothy Dalton as Mr. Rochester.[2]Watch out – I do love my costume dramas and adaptations, and will be writing about them in this blog. It is a novel at once so ordinary and yet so strange; humdrum life wrapped about with the uncanny, that I cannot prize it from my mind. So little wonder then, that, as I looked at the marriage register and for some reason I don’t know, looked at the instructions for vicars on how to fill out the entries, rather than the entries themselves, that I noticed, once again, that the name of the publisher was George Eyre:

George Eyre’s name appearing in a marriage register. His name also appears in baptism and burial registers from 1813 onwards. After 1831, the “King’s printers” became known as Eyre & Spottiswoode. The 1812 Act specifically states that the registers are to be “of good and durable Paper, to be provided by His Majesty’s Printer as Occasion may require”, which means that every baptism, marriages and burial register in the country was printed by Eyre & Strahan. A sample of 1813 registers that I have looked at are all printed by “His Majesty’s Printer”, but later registers, from the 1840s, are produced by a range of other companies.
George Eyre's name appearing at the front of a baptism register. The Act to use pre-printed registers was passed in 1812, to come into force at the beginning of 1813.
George Eyre’s name appearing at the front of a baptism register. The Act to use pre-printed registers was passed in 1812, to come into force at the beginning of 1813. Old-style, pre-printed registers were in use for marriages from 1754-1812 (although not published by Eyre & Strahan), and some parishes used pre-printed registers for baptisms and burials to keep track of the taxes to fund the war with France.

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1 Especially when something rather uncanny happened to me and my mum in the churchyard at High Ongar….
2 Watch out – I do love my costume dramas and adaptations, and will be writing about them in this blog.

The Sunderland men who came to Essex


Photo by Cindy Lilley.

I’ve nearly finished transcribing the baptisms and burials register for Wivenhoe St. Mary the Virgin, 1695-1751.

It’s not unusual at all to find people being buried in a parish that they don’t usually live in – either because it’s where they’re originally from and they want to be buried beside their family members, or because they died too far from home.

I found one burial from 1718, and two from the 1730s for men from Sunderland, County Durham – James Dun on 22nd October 1718, John Whitfield on 16th June 1735, and Timothy Ruston on 23rd August 1739. Not long after Timothy’s burial, on 24th Feb 1739/40, John Richardson from Scarborough, Yorkshire was buried.[1]More from the 1752-1812 register: John Richardson from Sunderland, aged 36, buried on 30 March 1776, William Hardcastle, aged 13, from the ship William of Sunderland, buried 23rd December 1808.

These seemed rather odd – Wivenhoe is nearly 300 miles away from Sunderland by road, and 250 miles from Scarborough. Of course, with Wivenhoe being a village which had a port and ship yards for centuries, it’s possible that these men were sailors, involved with transporting something down the North Sea coast. But what?

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1 More from the 1752-1812 register: John Richardson from Sunderland, aged 36, buried on 30 March 1776, William Hardcastle, aged 13, from the ship William of Sunderland, buried 23rd December 1808.

Further afield…

Today, I went for a wander around the churchyard at St. Peter’s in Harborne, a suburb to the west of Birmingham. No, not in Essex or Suffolk, but a wonderful old place to rummage about in nonetheless. The church has a 14th century tower, but people have probably worshipped there since Saxon times, or before – it is where St. Chad of Mercia (to whom Birmingham’s Pugin-designed Catholic cathedral is dedicated) preached. This corner of Harborne has a distinctly “village” vibe. The cricket club is just across the road, and an ancient lime tree avenue runs across the pitch, from the church to Harborne Park Road.

18th century headstones at Harborne St. Peter's
18th century headstones at Harborne St. Peter’s

It’s a splendid churchyard, with stones dating back to the late 18th century with fairly legible inscriptions (which I’ll write about in later blogs). It is canopied by tall, ancient trees, so that it always seems to be in an M. R. James half-light, a liminal space where history is breathing at your shoulder.

There are several ways into the churchyard: we entered from the gate by the junction of St. Peter’s Road and Old Church Road. The graves here are from the early twentieth century, so might be an extension of the original churchyard.

We were met at once by an extraordinary memorial, which is right up by the churchyard wall, to 17-year old Freda Strawbridge, who died in 1936, “result of a motor accident”. I don’t know when this was erected, but I had always assumed that a headstone like this – well – is a bit early 21st century. Sociologists seem to attribute the fad for headstones with drawings of steam trains, aeroplanes, teddy bears and cars on them to our post-Princess Diana mindset (before 1997, I don’t remember the British leaving floral tributes at the site of fatal accidents, but nowadays, it’s a national past-time). So this stone really stuck out, and when I read the dates on it, I was actually amazed that it is so comparatively early. 1936, really?

Freda Strawbridge's unusual memorial at Harborne St. Peter's
Freda Strawbridge’s unusual memorial at Harborne St. Peter’s

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Minors, cold feet and bigamists – the secrets of East Bergholt’s banns register


Banns registers aren’t usually considered that important for family history research – after all, we only need to look at marriage registers, because we’re interested in the successful marriages that produced our ancestors. Aren’t we?

The availability of banns registers isn’t as complete as marriage registers, perhaps for this very reason. For instance, Essex Record Office has only included banns in their scanning project where they have been entered in a marriage register (as you sometimes find between 1754-1837), or where a banns register has been bound with a marriage register. Banns registers on their own aren’t included.

Usually, they don’t tell you much. They give the names and sometimes the abodes, and sometimes the marital statuses of those wishing to marry, and the dates on which the banns were published in the church. They can be useful if you’re fairly sure someone got married and you want to know which parish it took place, or if the marriage register for the other parish has been irretrievably lost, so providing you with a rough date for their nuptials and the bride’s surname previous to her marriage.

Sometimes, however, you’ll find the banns for a marriage that never took place, and you’re left wondering what on earth happened. Who changed their mind? Did someone find a legal objection to their union? Most of the time, we’re left with no clue and have to scratch our heads in wonder (particularly if you find someone who serially gets to the second reading of the banns before bailing out!). However, the banns for East Bergholt, between 1783 and 1803, provide reasons for the cancelled marriages, and they give us an interesting insight into late eighteenth century lives, and attitudes towards marriage.

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Lawshall: of private baptisms and misgotten infants

hogarth-tristram-shandy-baptismHogarth’s depiction of Tristram Shandy’s home baptism.

The other week, I started to transcribe the parish registers for Lawshall in Suffolk, starting from the earliest date available – baptisms in 1563. Some rather intriguing things have appeared in them, and I thought I’d share them with you because they shine a light on the ordinary lives of people in the past.

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